Eating sugary food, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes are legal activities. But politicians still use the law to discourage them. They raise their price, prohibit or limit their advertisement, restrict where they can be sold and consumed, and sometimes ban them outright. These politicians thereby violate John Stuart Mill’s famous principle that people should be free to do whatever they like, provided they harm no one but themselves. Why? What can justify these paternalistic policies? Killjoys reviews the full range of justifications that have been offered: from the idea that people are too irrational to make sensible decisions to the idea that they are effectively compelled by advertising to harm themselves. The author, Christopher Snowdon, exposes the logical or factual errors that undermine each purported justification. He thus provides a comprehensive critique of the health paternalism that has been adopted by governments around the world.
I haven’t read the book, but the comments by Snowdon and Delingpole in the podcast, and the outline description above, were thought-provoking enough to prompt a few questions.
The first is that if “people are too irrational to make sensible decisions”, would that surely not mean that those who wish to compel them to make sensible decisions are equally irrational, because they also are people? Why should we suppose that all rationality resides with the reforming killjoys, and all irrationality with smokers and drinkers and tubbies? Isn’t it more likely that they are all equally irrational, or equally rational?
My second question is: Does advertising actually compel anyone to do anything? Advertisements inform potential buyers of the availability of some product. And they may do so repetitively. But if I repeatedly see an advertisement for, say, Guinness, is it true that after a few months or years I will eventually succumb and go and buy myself a pint of Guinness? Does mere repetition serve to breed conformity? Isn’t it just as likely to breed resistance? There are some people who seem to believe that capitalism is driven by advertising, and that but for advertisements nobody would buy anything. I am not one of those people.
And my third question is: Why is Chris Snowdon appealing to John Stuart Mill and his famous principle that people should be free to do whatever they like, provided they harm no one but themselves? Is this not an appeal to authority? John Stuart Mill died some 150 years ago. He’s a contemporary of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, both of which are often treated as equally illustrious authorities. Can we please forget about all these Bearded Dead White Men (both Darwin and Marx sported majestic beards, although Mill did not, and this may explain his comparative obscurity) and come up with a few new arguments to counter the army of killjoys invading the world? Or at least rewrite and rephrase the arguments these philosophers employed?
And my fourth question is: What is “harm”? There used to be an aphorism that was often repeated during my childhood, which went:
Sticks and stones
May break my bones.
But words will
Never hurt me.
But these days, in a world full of snowflakes bent on no-platforming anyone who says anything disagreeable to them, it would seem that words have become the most hurtful things of all. We must all watch what we say lest we offend somebody or other with our words. But I continue to cleave to the aphorism above: Real hurt is broken bones, not hurt feelings.
Or, putting it another way, let us suppose that some man loses his wife in a train crash, and seeks compensation from the railway company for her loss, citing all the cooking and cleaning and general housekeeping she used to do for him, and which he must now do himself. Could he also seek a substantial sum to offset the intense grief and sorrow that he felt (and continues to feel) upon her death? Or, supposing that she never did any cooking or cleaning or housekeeping, could he reasonably seek compensation to offset solely the grief and sorrow and loneliness that attended her death?
If the answer to this question is “Yes, he is entitled to seek compensation for his grief and sorrow”, then when millions of people experience grief and sorrow at the death of celebrities (Michael Jackson comes to mind, for no particular reason) might they also not seek compensation for their grief and sorrow as well?
And to push it a step further, if some people attending the Shakespeare tragedy Romeo and Juliet experience intense grief and sorrow at the deaths of both Romeo and Juliet at the end of the play, and leave the theatre sobbing, should they not be entitled to claim compensation from the theatre management for the suffering that has been caused to them? Should not all those who leave the theatre with tears streaming down their faces be at least be given their money back? And if not their money back, should they not all at least be given complementary handkerchiefs to wipe away their tears?
And if in this last case we deny that theatre-goers deserve any compensation for their grief, shouldn’t we also deny any compensation to Michael Jackson fans and widowers for their grief as well? In fact, should we not disregard all such feelings when counting the real cost of some event.
Does Chris Snowdon address any of these questions in his book? There is only one way to find out. I must buy the book.